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Effectiveness or Efficiency: Agile Shouldn't Feel Like a Fight

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Have you ever felt like the "agile" you’re advocating for is completely different from the "agile" your organisation or managers wants? If so, you need to stop and reassess, argued Tony O’Halloran in his talk at Agile Business Day 2019. Having a mismatch in these fundamental goals causes stress and anxiety in change agents, and can put you in an isolating and lonely place professionally. O’Halloran suggested that change agents, together with those they are working with, should create a shared vision of the "agile" they want to strive for and explicitly prioritise between effectiveness or efficiency.

Efficiency and effectiveness are two very different things, and they cannot both have equal priority when talking about the environment you’re trying to create, said O’Halloran:

If you’re only focused on going fast, you prioritise efficiency, but if you’re trying to focus on innovation, creativity and making sure you’re working on the right thing, you need to focus on effectiveness often at the cost of efficiency.

As they are both important, he suggested to choose one that you’re going to sacrifice over the other when the time comes. "For me, effectiveness is much more important than efficiency," he said. "I’d rather be jogging down the right road than sprinting blindly down the wrong one." If you’re not aligned on which you’re going to optimise for, you may be in for conflict further down the road, said O’Halloran.

Change agents can often find themselves feeling like they are antagonising or driving for change and causing friction. "If you find that you’re spending more of your time arguing and convincing people on your direction, rather than helping them get somewhere that they’re already striving to go, that’s not a good feeling," said O’Halloran.

When change agents feel like this, they should stop and reassess, said O’Halloran. He suggested for them to check in with themselves to find out if they are supporting a movement or dragging people somewhere they don’t want to go.

Feeling friction is usually a sign that something is wrong, said O’Halloran:

It mostly means I’m breaking Rule #1 of Esther Derby’s 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change - "Strive for Congruence". Something is misaligned between where I’m going and others want to go.

O’Halloran mentioned that shared direction is not just a "team thing". He suggested for change agents to work on creating a shared vision of the "agile" they want to strive for with those they are working with. "If you’re not on the same page, that’s ok - you’ve both learned something and you can both make an informed decision about what next," he said. "If you are aligned, you have common ground you can work from."

InfoQ spoke with Tony O’Halloran after his talk at Agile Business Day 2019.

InfoQ: What causes the feeling agile coaches can experience of being "pushing for change"?

Tony O’Halloran: I don’t think it’s limited to agile coaches or scrum masters - I’m really talking about anyone who’s considered to be a change agent - it’s really the realm of people who see a better way of working or organising and are willing to do something about it!

A common cause that I’ve seen for this feeling of friction looks something like this: a management team "buys" into agile, seeing it just as a way to actually getting something done, and getting it done quickly. They might get some outside help, hire a scrum master, kick off some teams and start seeing some progress. They declare success; job done! From then on, they "manage by velocity" - seeing increasing throughput or speed as the only measure of success.

However, the "agile" that we all discuss, read books about and go to conferences about is so much more! We want to foster learning, feedback loops and real collaboration, both inside and outside the organisation. This mismatch in goals is the cause of so much stress and anxiety I see in agile change agents.

InfoQ: What’s the agile fluency model, and how does it reflect different types of agile?

O’Halloran: The Agile Fluency Model was created by Diana Larsen and James Shore to describe the different steps that a team can go through as they learn. Teams can develop from first forming, being dedicated and beginning to use a framework, through to further steps like shortening feedback loops, using those feedback loops to deliver what the market needs and cutting edge domains like organisational design and alternative governance structures. Most teams however, stop at an intermediate step.

None of these intermediate steps are "wrong" as such, and all of them can add value.

Importantly, all of them can and are referred to as "agile", but they all mean quite different things.

The company in the example earlier had set its sights on getting teams to the "Focusing" step in the model. The "agile" we all read and talk about is what the model refers to as "Agile’s Promise" - the Optimizing step and beyond. There’s a pretty clear distinction here between what people describe as Doing agile (Focusing), and Being agile (Optimizing and beyond).

This definitely isn’t an organisational model, but I do think it has some value at that level to help support the discussion around "where do we want our teams to be heading?" If we know that to be successful we need our teams to be striving towards a certain level, we can know how we can support them and see if there is anything getting in their way. Shifting between any of these levels certainly has organisational implications; they all need funding, buy-in or structural changes of some type.

InfoQ: What effect can bringing an organization to a different level of agile fluency that they want to go have in the organization, and what impact can that have on the agile coaches who are involved in it?

O’Halloran: Ultimately the friction these mismatched goals can cause is pretty harmful. Pushing, arguing and convincing constantly will result in you feeling isolated. It can easily lead to your impact being diminished and being seen as "that person who’s always complaining about how things are around here". It’s lonely. This feeling should be a trigger for you to change your approach or company, and not the accepted norm for someone who wants to inspire positive agile change.

I’ve experienced this myself. When I was working as a coach at a company a few years ago (I won’t name it here! ), we got to a point where our teams were all using some framework or another, collaborating really well and getting lots of stuff done, but we were only building exactly what we were told to! We wanted to get closer to customers, implement continuous delivery and experiment, and pushed and pushed to get the business to support the investment in skills, technology and empowerment that we needed to get there, but we ended up losing every fight and proposal. We had mismatched ideas of what agile could mean and goals we wanted our teams to reach.

InfoQ: How can agile coaches be a force for change without pushing for it?

O’Halloran: Build a movement. Build an attractive change that people want to be a part of! Don’t be bottom up, top down or middle-out - be all those things and be explicit about where you’re trying to get to! Support and assist rather than push and drive.

More importantly, we can be a force for change merely by being somewhere. Make sure that the place you choose to spend your energy working for hours is a place that allows people to be their awesome effective selves, and not just hamsters running ever quicker on a wheel.

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